Merchant Marines Want Theirs

The Fresno Bee, June 20, 2001

By Eli Setencich

"Our losses were the worst," Raymond Coglia, the one in the wheelchair, was saying. "Worse than any other service proportionately," he snorted. "Even the Marines. They were next."

Edsel Dent chimed in, chanting, "Damn the submarines. We're the men of the Merchant Marine."

As they do once a month, they were meeting in a back room of the Legion of Valor Museum downtown, a dozen or so this time, looking for respect.

It wasn't until 1988 that the government decided even to recognize members of the Merchant Marine as veterans, as though they hadn't put it on the line. A couple years later, they actually got their discharge papers.

These are the sailors of whom Gen. Douglas MacArthur said, "I hold no branch in higher esteem than the Merchant Marine Service."

During World War II, they died at a rate of one in 24. All told, 8,651 of the 215,000 who served perished on troubled waters and enemy shores.

Through it all, they delivered the goods often into harm's way, ancient mariners now like Coglia and Dent, Robert Wright, Harold Hudson and Rufus Hernandez, the commanding officer of the Western Chapter of the American Merchant Marine Veterans, who survived the invasion of Okinawa.

One of them, Fred Lewis, survived a couple of kamikaze attacks, Japanese suicide pilots flying their planes into his freighter, not to mention the five days the ship was under daily strafing and bombing by enemy aircraft.

At least he remained afloat, unlike John Grimes, who experienced that sinking feeling, though only temporarily as it turned out.

As it chugged through the Marshall Islands in the western Pacific, his ship was hit by a torpedo fired from a Japanese submarine. That was the bad news. The good news was that it had already delivered its load of aviation fuel and was headed home empty, or the 80-year-old ex-seaman wouldn't be talking about it now.

A second engineer, Grimes was coming off watch duty in late afternoon when the torpedo struck. All hands, some 44 merchant seamen and a dozen Navy personnel, abandoned ship, climbing into lifeboats and going over the side into the high sea, where they spent the night.

They were still there the next morning. So was the ship. "We got back on board. Fired her up and headed out," he said. The only problem after that came in the form of a solitary enemy fighter that paid nightly visits for more than a week, emptying its machine guns and flying off until its target
steamed out of range. "No big deal," said the old sailor.

The big deal now for the local seafaring veterans is receiving not just respect, but also recognition, the way old soldiers and aviators and others who served do when somebody holds a parade.

So the next time there's one, don't be surprised if you see a boat with a crew of codgers in it sailing up dry land. They've found just the ticket in San Pedro, a captain's launch about the size of a lifeboat. It's just a matter of hauling it home and getting it into parade shape.

"Diesel-powered, weighs about 3 tons, and is exactly 26-feet, 2-inches long," said C.O. Hernandez, with overdue respect

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7/13/01